There was some legitimate doubt before but Brazil must be accepted as genuine World Cup contenders after winning the Confederations Cup on Sunday night.
Their 3-0 mauling of Spain in Rio de Janeiro was not just their best performance for years – although it certainly was that – but also seemed to mark a moment of development or growth for a team which has been drifting recently.
This Confederations Cup was always hoped to be Brazil’s preparation, of their grounds, their infrastructure and their team. It has also led to convulsions off the pitch, whose outcomes may be far-reaching. But while the public are angry with the football administration, the football team themselves are as much the vessel for national hopes as they always were.
Inside the stadiums, the support for Brazil was fervent and ferocious and Spain, the most successful and accomplished international team of all time, were overwhelmed by the occasion. This does not happen often. But they were running into a host nation who, for the first time since at least the 2007 Copa America, had found the right combination and cohesion of players.
This, ultimately, was what Luiz Felipe Scolari was brought in for, after the consecutive disappointments of the 2010 World Cup, 2011 Copa America and 2012 Olympic games which cost first Dunga and then Mano Menezes their jobs.
But, last night, Brazil played with a focus, intensity and freedom that had been evading them for years. Like most Brazil teams, though, it draws its force from one remarkable individual. Neymar was the best player last night and the best player in the tournament, winning the ‘Golden Ball’ and scoring his fourth special goal in five games with a ferocious drive into the near top corner.
Neymar ran at Spain all evening and they did not like it. Alvaro Arbeloa was booked and taken off at half-time and Gerard Pique sent off in the second half as they struggled to cope with his unique style at speed.
Unlike Robinho, the last great hope to come out of Santos, Neymar was always fully aware of his defensive duties too. Brazil did what Spain so often do to others, pressing from the front and inducing errors. Hulk, on the right wing, is a powerful presence while Fred led the line selflessly and efficiently. He is never going to be Rivaldo but there are worse things to specialise in than dirty goals and he forced in crucial openers against Uruguay in the semis and Spain in the final.
Behind them is Oscar, who may look scrawny in the Premier League but is a tigerish dynamo in a yellow Brazil shirt, and a solid base in Paulinho and Luis Gustavo. But the heart of this Brazil team, and maybe its surprising strength, is at centre-back. For all the lazy clichés about defending in Brazil, they are lucky enough to have probably the world’s two most accomplished centre-backs.
Thiago Silva and David Luiz were both brilliant again on Sunday night, shutting down Spain with their brilliant foresight, assurance, technique and athleticism. With the exception of a few minor panics against Uruguay, they were excellent all tournament and Luiz’s crucial clearance from Pedro at 1-0 came just minutes before Neymar doubled Brazil’s lead. Firmly in place ahead of Julio Cesar, who had an impeccable tournament, they provide a foundation which not many opponents will be able to break through.
Brazil do probably lack the depth of Germany or Spain, or the tournament experience, or the range of goal-scorers. But anything can happen in tournament football and no European team is yet to win a World Cup in the Americas. Brazil are not perfect but, as they showed on Sunday night, they are certainly capable of being good enough.